Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2200
Executive Director, POMED
Senior Adviser to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, United States Institute of Peace
Senior Research Associate, The Jamestown Foundation
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Cole Bockenfeld began by introducing the panelists and Sebastian Graefe, Program Director for Foreign and Security Policy with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington. Graefe provided background on the foundation’s work in the Middle East and commented on the need, as outlined in the report, for the U.S. to adjust its programs in the region. Bockenfeld identified public rhetoric, strategic pressure, and funding as the three pillars of U.S. democracy promotion in the Middle East. While the first two are “thoroughly debated” in D.C., the third is not. Discussion on funding must move beyond the question of numbers, and instead focus on the use and effectiveness of funding.
Stephen McInerney first outlined the major challenges with compiling this report. The budget process has become “quite dysfunctional,” resulting in significant delays in Congress and within the administration. These delays have been detrimental to programs in the Middle East. And the Arab uprisings further complicated the report, as it has been difficult for the administration to react to political developments while dealing with funding cuts. A revised report will be released in September, after the FY11 budget is finalized.
Next, some of the major conclusions of the report were discussed. McInerney generally gives the administration credit for making the MENA region a priority in light of budget cuts and a difficult political environment. Egypt and Tunisia have been top priorities for the administration, and funding for MEPI has increased. Additionally, a regional response fund has been established, reflecting the administration’s recognition of the need for flexibility in responding to upcoming political developments in countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
The significant imbalance between military and development aid, present throughout the region, remains a serious issue in Egypt. But McInerney noted that discussion on a shift towards development assistance is taking place. This is “rather unprecedented,” and a shift in funding in Egypt could set a precedent for the region. Furthermore, since the revolution, a USAID ban on funding local organizations not approved by the government has been reversed. Yet within Egypt there is significant resistance to foreign aid.
In Morocco and Jordan, no considerable change has occurred, but aid programs are being reconsidered and McInerney hopes for adjustments in the future. Morocco is an example of a country with few impediments to civil society and many active organizations. The U.S. could provide more democracy assistance to countries such as Morocco, yet programs are minimal at present. In Iraq, civilian assistance programs have been cut “quite considerably,” and this is disappointing. Overall, there is “a lot less U.S. support” for civilian and military assistance in Iraq. Finally, it remains to be seen if U.S. aid to authoritarian allies will be impacted by the Arab uprisings. In the past, the U.S. feared tackling politically sensitive issues with allies, yet these issues contributed to uprisings in Bahrain and elsewhere.
Next, Michael Ryan praised the report for accurately and transparently demonstrating the real struggles that occur within the government regarding funding. Ryan argued that down budgets force creativity, and “small, flexible, well-targeted programs” can be the most effective. At present, small programs are in fact the most important for U.S. goals. And for this reason, small programs can have a disproportionately large impact when cut.
In general, funding has both political and strategic purposes. It is necessary to work with governments directly, in addition to working with the private sector. And strategically, aid can be used to counter extremism. Programs promoting good governance and economic growth should be supported by the U.S., but must be locally designed and without a U.S. “footprint.” In regards to the Arab uprisings, Ryan argued that the U.S. should not wait until the next crisis before providing assistance. Rather, programs that collaborate with civil society, support independent judicial processes, and promote good governance are “perhaps the most important element” of the United States’ work in the region.
Finally, Daniel Brumberg argued that the U.S. strategy of supporting civil society in authoritarian regimes in order to indirectly promote democracy has been ineffective. And foreign aid must be supported by sustained diplomacy and rhetoric pushing for democracy. In regards to Egypt, there must be a more robust discussion of the lopsidedness of military versus development assistance. And a major program is needed to reform the security apparatus in Egypt and in Tunisia as well. Finally, it is a very bad idea, and would be counterproductive, to cut U.S. aid to Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood gains power in the upcoming elections. Rather, the U.S. should provide funding for youth in Egypt to engage across ideological lines in a real dialogue. The U.S. must make clear the principle that foreign aid is a fundamental right, not a sign of U.S. interference or imperialism. Finally, Brumberg reiterated the sentiment that discussion of U.S. aid should focus on how to spend assistance money rather than the amounts.
During the question and answer, McInerney noted the importance of security sector reform, recently named Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson’s interest in supporting this reform, and the need for the U.S. to be cautious in making sure the effort is led by Egypt. And McInerney recommended that the U.S. should slowly show its support for the Egyptian people rather than relying on public diplomacy to defend U.S. policies that have been controversial in the past. Ryan agreed that the Egyptian people want to like the U.S., this desire can be supported by funding and actions, and public diplomacy will be ineffective. Ryan also recommended that the U.S. promote police reform by providing training and support rule of law and judicial reform initiatives.
In response to a question on financing aid programs, McInerney argued that budget cuts provide creative ways for the U.S. to stretch its resources. The U.S. can expand trade programs and promote regional trade. And the U.S. can also work multilaterally with Gulf allies that have financial resources available. This cooperation would be difficult and potentially dangerous, but the potential nevertheless exists to collaborate without compromising on democracy issues.
Brumberg noted the need to work with youth in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere to build institutional capacities to absorb funding assistance. Since institutional capacity is currently low and fragmented, dumping large amounts of aid would be counterproductive and dangerous. Ryan agreed on the need to support institution building, and noted that small as opposed to large aid programs are not entirely bad given the lack of institutional capacity in many countries. McInerney contextualized this discussion by citing the need to support civil society development in Libya.
Finally, McInerney argued that in Bahrain, U.S. interests are more aligned than usually understood to be. No serious reforms have occurred, the National Dialogue is a farce, and without significant changes it is possible that violence could erupt. This breakdown would of course be very dangerous for U.S. interests.